Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Five Tiny Spoons

Dionne Quintuplet Spoons

A funny bit of serendipity occurred while I was in Iowa last month. Mom was showing me her new dining room hutch and the drawer she had for storing Grandma's silver and some other old things like curling irons she heated up on the wood stove and a set of five old spoons. Mom said, "I used to choose one of these spoons every morning to eat my breakfast with. See, each one is a different one of....oh, what were they called? There were five babies that were born..."

"The Dionne quintuplets?" I asked.
"Yes, that's who they were! The Dionne quintuplets," she said. "They were very famous back then."

A year ago I'd never even heard of the Dionne quintuplets. They were famous in the 1930's for being the first quintuplets to survive after birth, but that was long before my time. They were, or are (two are still alive), older than my mom.

The Dionne Quintuplets

I knew about the Dionne quintuplets because I talked about them a lot this past winter when I played Lil, "the zany sister who plays the piano and breaks into song," in a community theatre production of The Octette Bridge Club. The play is about eight Irish Catholic sisters who meet for a weekly bridge game. The action takes place in 1934--the year the quintuplets were born--and 1944. Lil was particularly enamored with "those tiny, tiny babies" who were "so small one could fit in the palm of your hand. In the palm of your hand!"

You'd think doing a play with seven other women, all playing sisters, might be fraught with drama--the real life kind--but it wasn't. The eight of us became remarkably close over the weeks of rehearsals and productions--almost like real sisters only we didn't fight. But we did help each other put together costumes, nursed each other through colds, got together early to run lines or work on music. And we even supported each other through some pretty tough times.

One sister's grandmother died in hospice the week of production. She couldn't come to the dress rehearsal because she had to be at the funeral home. But she was back for opening night, holding it together by a thread. The play ends when, after an especially emotional revelation, Lil suggests they all gather around the piano and sing "You Are My Sunshine." My "sister" Nora said to me before the performance, "I don't think I can get through that song tonight." She was facing the audience and the back of the piano. I was playing the piano with my back to the audience, facing her. I said, "You just look at me and we'll get through it."

So we played the last scenes, and luckily we were all supposed to be crying anyway....then I led the sisters to the piano to sing us out of the show. Nora took her place in front of me as I hit the intro notes. I looked right into her eyes and gave her the biggest smile I had, trying not to cry myself as I saw her struggle. But she bravely smiled back and we sang, and she looked for all the world like she was having a great time singing with her sisters. The lights came down, we hurried off stage, and then had to come right back out in pairs for our curtain calls. As we faced each other from opposite wings waiting to go out together, I could see Nora was still struggling. So I kept smiling at her as we met in the middle and walked back across that stage together and took our bows...The show must go on, right? Falling apart was for later in the dressing room.

Nora wasn't the only one who needed her sisters during those weeks. A couple of weeks before production, I had to have my standard poodle, Pippi, euthanized. My daughter and I took her into the vet's office and held her while she died. And then I went to school and taught, and I went to Octette rehearsal. As soon as I got there, my oldest "sister," Martha took me in her arms and let me cry a while. She'd been through it before. And my other sisters took their turns hugging me and commiserating. But the show goes on even when it's a practice run. We took our places on stage and started running the show.

Everything was fine. I played zany Lil and talked about how I wished I could see those tiny babies, and how we were going to be even more famous than them because our picture was going to be in the rotogravure. Everything was fine....until we got to the end of the first act. I didn't even see it coming. The sisters were sharing a moment of remembrance of their late parents, crossing themselves and saying, "God rest their souls." And Lil, after a theatrical beat to let the audience see how much we missed them, starts to sing one of their Daddy's favorite songs. And it goes like this:
Old dog Tray ever faithful
Grief shall not drive him away.
He is gentle, he is kind,
No better friend you'll find,
No better friend than old dog Tray.

I got about three words into it before it hit me what I was singing and I started crying. My seven sisters realized it when they saw the tears roll down my cheeks and they started singing louder to get me through it. Martha took one hand and Alice reached across the bridge table for the other. By the end of the song, all eight of us were crying. The director, assistant director and producer stared at us from their seats in the house for a few long seconds as we sniffed and dabbed. And then the director jumped up and said, "You aren't supposed to cry there. It's way too early to start crying." Then we all laughed, and Martha told him I'd just had to put my dog to sleep that morning. So he gave me a big hug too and we took a break.

All that to say, I knew nothing about the Dionne quintuplets until last winter, and yet if you mentioned them to any of my seven sisters from Octette, I think they would all experience the same rush of memories I did*. And here was my mom showing me a full set of spoons, handles molded into the little girls' likenesses and engraved with their names.

I wish I could say my mom gave me those spoons to bring home with me, but she didn't. I have to admit I covet them. It's mostly because they belonged to my grandma and my mom used them as a child. But I also wish so much I could show them to my Octette sisters. We talked about the poor Dionne quintuplets and how tragic their lives were....but I probably won't end up with the spoons. It's better not to expect things like that to happen.

I'll just enjoy the moment of serendipity. And be glad for my sisters--both the ones I share blood with and the ones I shared Octette with.

* I'm just starting rehearsals on a new play; one of my sisters and the director, our honorary sister, will be in it with me. Nora beat me out for a part in a play that goes into production this week, and it's being directed by Octette's assistant director. We see each other several times a week at the theater (different theater). I'm also stage managing a play there so our rehearsals overlap. Most of us are friends on Facebook, so we've kept in touch. We may not be as close as the Dionne quintuplets, but we forged an amazing connection in those weeks we played sisters. After a while, we weren't even acting any more.


  1. Thanks for the reminder .. the Dionne Quintuplets were born the day I was exactly five months old. Only two are still with us? -- that's sad.

  2. According to the entry on Wikipedia two of them are alive. Two of them were relatively young when they died.

    Yvonne Édouilda Marie Dionne — died June 23, 2001, age 67, of cancer
    Annette Lillianne Marie Dionne (Allard) — age 77 as of October 2011
    Cécile Marie Émilda Dionne (Langlois) — age 77 as of October 2011
    Émilie Marie Jeanne Dionne — died August 6, 1954, age 20, of accidental suffocation during an epileptic seizure at her convent
    Marie Reine Alma Dionne (Houle) — died February 27, 1970, age 35, of an apparent blood clot of the brain in Montreal

  3. Oh, Carol -- How did I miss the death of Pippi? I wish I had read that January post back then...and been able to send sympathy. Of course, I would have been writing in a state of ignorance of what it was truly like. And now I Know.

    BTW, it occurs to me that Pippi might be the dog that inspired the story I tell of my early wonder with being online. I think we were in a chat and you said something about your dog just farting. And I thought, wow, I am in Indiana and I know of the moment a dog farted in a kitchen in Ohio.

    Did you have another dog before Pippi, though? This would have been circa 95-96, that seems too long ago.

  4. I had a black standard poodle named Sly before Pippi. He was her opposite in so many ways: serious, fiercely protective, a one-woman dog--mine. He thought farting was a sign of weakness. If he happened to let one slip, he gave his ass a stern glare and left the room.

    As you can see, I didn't ever write about Pippi's last days or hours. I was busy teaching and acting ..... and I just didn't want to relive it with words. I probably mentioned it on Facebook. I should have written the story here though.

    One of the things that stood out that day was that Sophie spent the night with us so she could be here and go with us the next morning. We stayed up most of the night. Sophie was pregnant, and when we got to the vet's office, our regular vet wasn't there. Another vet came in to administer the drugs, and she was pregnant too. She cried with us as we held Pippi while she passed over.

    It's still hard to write about.